App article and video on “Lucky” Leo Whalen.
Thank you App, thank you town of Seaside, thank you loyal customers 🙂
Written by Michael L. Diamond @mdiamondapp
SEASIDE HEIGHTS — No one here can explain how Lucky Leo’s managed to escape the worst of superstorm Sandy’s damage, particularly since its neighbors were clobbered.
But once the arcade floor was cleared of mounds of sand last winter, it was open again, same as before. The same as it has been every year since 1953, under the watchful eyes of the Whalen family all along.
Lucky Leo’s is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer, offering the Jersey Shore tradition of games and prizes to the beachgoing public. Outside are the flashing lights that beckon visitors on summer nights. Inside are familiar games. Watch the video above to hear the Whalen family talk about Lucky Leo’s.
Behind it all is a respite from our daily lives. The Whalen family knows it well; the arcade has helped them through their own tragedies. And the public seems to know it, too. After touring the area with his family who were visiting from out of town, Steve Scott, 34, of Belmar racked up 18,000 points on Skee-ball — a game that gives you 10 points even for a terrible shot.
“We wanted to show them the Shore, how bad it is,” Scott said. “But it’s good that this is up and running.”
Like old times
On a recent Monday, if you squinted through the sun, it was like old times. Leo Whalen, who started the business in 1953 with a $4,000 loan from a credit union, greeted old friends on the boardwalk, picked up quarters from the floor, caught up with his grandson and offered advice to an employee.
At 86, Whalen and his wife, Barbara, live in Waretown during the summer and West Palm Beach, Fla., during the winter.
The short version of his early life goes like this: He was born and raised in Toms River. His father owned a gas station in Lakehurst that also sold ice cream, soda, candy and cigarettes. He was drafted before he graduated from Toms River High School, three months before the atomic bomb ended World War II. He then served for a year in Puerto Rico before returning to Toms River.
While he began his career as a math and science teacher, Whalen’s ability to chat with strangers made him a natural for the boardwalk amusement business, where he worked during the summer to supplement his $3,000 annual salary with another $1.25 an hour.
Offered the chance to buy an amusement stand in Seaside Heights in 1953, he was approved for the loan and set up shop. Whalen notes the business was not quite legal; New Jersey in 1956 declared boardwalk games akin to gambling. When the police came by, he said, he would temporarily close until things cooled down.
The state changed course in 1960 thanks to a referendum, allowing him to breathe easier. In 1975 he expanded Lucky Leo’s and opened an arcade.
The best part of the job?
“The money,” Whalen said, jokingly. “No, what it is, is the people. I’m a people person. You see the same ones day after day, week after week.”
Good times and bad
Whalen had a built-in customer base that was drawn to the beaches in the summer. He had his family working for him and ready to step in when he retired. You would think it was a series of endless summers.
But there were hard times, too. His daughter, Patty, died in a skiing accident in 1983 in Breckenridge, Colo., at age 26. And his son Michael died of an illness a little more than a decade later, at 36.
“You don’t get it out of your system, but time does help,” Leo Whalen said.
Each time, the Whalen family returned to Lucky Leo’s, the familiar waves brushing against the Shore, the familiar steps strolling along the boardwalk, the familiar cheers and groans and dings ringing out in the arcade.
“This truly was the one constant,” said Steve Whalen, who, along with his brother, Tom, took over when Leo retired 25 years ago.
Is there such a thing as luck? Sandy bore down hard on Seaside Heights. The roller coaster from Casino Pier was in the ocean. Coin Castle, another nearby arcade, was left with six feet of water and $1.3 million in damage.
Lucky Leo’s? It had water in the basement and sand on the arcade floor. But it opened less than three months later.
‘It’s in the blood’
Wayne Cimorelli, Coin Castle owner, said this summer has seen fewer visitors. But those who return make sure to say “thank you,” a level of gratitude that let him know that the arcades — both his and Lucky Leo’s — meant something more to people than just a few won stuffed animals.
“There’s an expression we have: ‘It’s in the blood.’ ” Cimorelli said. “When I started (working on the boardwalk) at 15 years of age, my sister, who was 14 at the time, worked for Leo Whalen. He was a great guy to work for, and what’s amazing about him is each and every time I see him, which is only two or three times a year, he always remembers my sister’s name. And when you shake his hand, you want to hug him.”
Lucky Leo’s has survived. This summer is about 20 percent behind last year, which, come to think of it, is not that bad, considering last summer was a record year, this June was washed out by rain, and this July was a scorcher.
Steve Whalen has worked here since he was a teenager, and it sounds like he never gave serious thought to doing anything else. While his father often joked that he should have set his goals higher, Steve said he takes comfort knowing he found what he was good at at an early age.
The business looks like it will remain in the family for many years to come. Steve’s daughter, Kelly, after a brief venture to Los Angeles, returned home to learn the ropes at Lucky Leo’s. She finds herself working at 3 a.m. on weekends. She was asked repeatedly by her father if she was sure this is what she wanted to do. It was.
“I said, ‘I want your life,’ ” said Kelly Whalen, 31.
It’s not too difficult to understand why. Despite the heartache the Whalens endured, they do not doubt that luck, good vibes, strong karma, whatever, can still happen.